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‘It’s like living in a big, black, lonely hole’

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This week is Mental Health Awareness Week and one local woman who is doing her bit to help raise awareness is Aimee Gauvain. Following a battle with severe depression and anxiety, she has set up a blog to document her journey to recovery and show others there is light at the end of the tunnel. She told Helen Hubert how she hopes sharing her experiences will help others facing the same struggles that she did...

WHEN Aimee Gauvain was diagnosed with severe clinical depression and anxiety back in September 2015, she knew very little about either of those illnesses.

Although the signs and symptoms had always been there, her lack of knowledge about mental illness meant she was unaware she had a problem until everything began to spiral out of control in her late 20s.

‘I couldn’t cope with normal everyday life any more and knew something was severely wrong. I had to get help,’ she said.

‘I didn’t really know who to talk to. I thought I was crazy and was sure no one else felt this way. Of course, they actually did, but I was so consumed in my own terrifying mind, I couldn’t do anything well. Especially think.

‘If you’ve never been depressed or suffered from anxiety, thank your lucky stars and cut the people some slack who need to take medication daily just so they can make eye contact with the cashier at the supermarket or even get out of bed that day.

‘No one on earth would choose the nightmare of depression and anxiety over an averagely turbulent life. It’s not an incapacity to cope with day-to-day living; it’s an incapacity to function. At all.’

She describes living with depression as trying to go about your daily life as ‘a half living ghost’. Normal everyday tasks became impossible for her and she felt numb, empty, lonely and confused.

‘Depression is humiliating,’ she explained. ‘It turns intelligent, kind people into zombies who can’t wash dishes or change their socks. It affects the ability to think clearly, to feel anything, to add value to your children, to go about your normal everyday life.

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‘It scoops out your normal ability to cope with bad days and bad news and replaces it with an unrecognisable sludge that finds no pleasure, no delight, no point in anything outside of your safe space. You alienate your friends because you can’t compose yourself socially, you risk your job because you can’t concentrate, you live in moderate squalor because you have no energy to stand up, let alone take the rubbish out. You become pathetic and you know it. And you have no capacity to stop the downward spiral. ‘You have no perspective, no emotional reserves, no faith that it will get better. So you feel guilty and ashamed of your inability to deal with life like a regular human being, which intensifies the depression and isolation. And so the cycle continues.

‘No one chooses it. No one deserves it. It runs in families and it can also ruin families.

‘You cannot imagine what it takes to fake normality, to show up to work, to make a dentist appointment, to pay a bill, to keep up with friends and family when you are using every bit of strength you have to fight against the battles in your own head.’

Aimee was able to put on a smile and hide her illness in the early stages, but it soon became obvious to those around her that something was seriously wrong.

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Mental illness affects not only the sufferer, but those around them too.

In the early stages, Aimee was able to hide how she was feeling, but once she reached breaking point and ended up having to take a significant amount of time off work, it became obvious to family, friends and colleagues that something was seriously wrong.

It is only now that she is well again that she is able to fully appreciate the impact her illness had on those around her.

‘It completely changed my whole life. Everything fell apart and I had to entirely rebuild my life,’ she said.

‘It was a huge strain on those closest to me at the time but being so poorly meant I was unable to fully appreciate what they were also going through.

‘It’s very difficult to see anything outside your own bubble of existence as it’s too exhausting to.

‘During my recovery, I have always tried to be quite open about my struggles as I think it’s important not to keep them hidden away, but I really struggled with being able to express how I was feeling when I was poorly, so that made it difficult to keep lines of communication open. I felt like a prisoner in my own head.’

Aimee had to wait more than eight months to receive an appointment to see a high intensity therapist, which was the course of treatment recommended to her at the time.

She was taking high doses of anti-depressants, sleeping tablets and additional medication to manage the effects of her anxiety. To add to her worries, she became pregnant so had the added complication of having to consider the possible effects of the medication on the baby.

During this period, her mental health plummeted as she experienced a streak of low moments with ‘one blow after another with seemingly no end in sight’.

Eventually she hit rock bottom.

‘It was only once I’d had a complete breakdown that the help I needed to get better was more readily available,’ she said.

‘It was almost as if you had to reach breaking point to really get noticed within the system. Otherwise, you were just another number.

‘Having said that, the support and guidance I have received from a huge variety of health professionals has been invaluable to my recovery. I just feel that investing more time focusing on early warning signs before they become a much bigger issue would be much more beneficial in the long run.’

Her recovery was gradual but effective and she credits the turnaround to ‘a combination of many different things over a long period of time’.

Following her recovery, Aimee, now 31, wanted to use her experiences to help others struggling with mental illness. She set up a blog called The Power of You to share her personal journey of recovery and offer an easily accessible collection of information and help available.

‘I think there is already an incredible amount of support in Guernsey for mental health awareness, increasingly so over the last few years. I just wanted to do my bit to try and help,’ she said.

‘I wanted to open up about my experiences and share my journey in the hope that someone who may be going through a rough time, or perhaps knows someone else who is, can seek comfort that they are not alone.’

Sharing her personal experiences so publicly was initially terrifying as she had no idea what kind of reaction it might spark, but she has been overwhelmed by the amount of positive support she has received since deciding to go live with the blog in February – even from complete strangers.

‘It makes it all worthwhile to know that I am able to make a difference, no matter how small,’ she said.

‘I am hoping that through The Power of You, I can reach out to others who may be able to relate to feelings or thoughts I may have had. Or maybe those that feel that they don’t know where to turn.

‘My hope is that by sharing my experiences, I can offer some hope or reassurance that things can and will get better. It just takes time and making sure you have all of the right support and tools in place. I want to make sure people are aware of the help available to them and make sure that everyone battling against any kind of mental illness, or supporting someone else who is, doesn’t have to battle alone.

‘I want to share the message that there IS light at the end of the tunnel and each of us has far more strength within us than we think we do.

‘Those racing thoughts may be scary but that’s all they are: thoughts. Just let them go.’

Aimee is delighted that awareness and understanding of mental health issues has improved in recent years, but thinks more still needs to be done.

‘Generally people seem more open and knowledgeable, but there is sadly still a huge stigma attached to mental illness that simply shouldn’t be there. I don’t know why that is.’

She believes people are far more accepting and sympathetic of other illnesses that affect the brain than they are of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. For example, they expect those suffering from dementia to experience symptoms such as memory loss and the deterioration of other cognitive abilities which interfere with their daily life and they understand when they behave in a way that would not ordinarily be acceptable.

‘It is the same with all other types of mental illness, but personally I feel illnesses such as depression and anxiety are not accepted and understood in the same way as illnesses such as dementia. Therefore, that stigma remains attached,’ she said.

Since it went live on Facebook on 17 February, The Power of You has received hundreds of page views and likes and posts generally reach between 4,000 and 10,000 people.

Aimee now hopes to continue growing this community that could potentially help someone when they need it most.

‘I want as many people as possible to be aware of the signs, symptoms and effects that mental illness can have and know what support is available to them, should they need it.

‘Mental health is such a broad subject – I only have personal experiences of coping with depression and anxiety, there are many other illnesses that I don’t know as much about.

‘In time, I would like to invite other people to share their journeys with different types of mental illness to provide an insight into a broader area of mental health.’

What is her advice to anyone currently struggling to see a light at the end of the tunnel?

‘In the first instance just be kind to yourself. Be patient. Remember to talk to yourself internally as you would externally, as that was one of my biggest downfalls.

‘I would recommend reaching out to a loved one or someone that you trust in whatever way you can. Maybe it’s face to face or via social media, a scribble on a notepad or over a beer in the pub. Whatever way you choose to do it, just reach out.

‘Suffering from mental illness is like permanently living in a big, black, lonely hole – reaching out can be the difference between falling deeper into the hole or having two arms reach in, grab you tightly and help to pull you out.

‘I would advise seeking medical advice from your GP as they can put you in touch with the appropriate professional and/or service. Taking that first step is never easy but once you make that step, things can only get better.

‘I would also recommend trying to remember that nothing is ever permanent. Everything has to end at some point. What you are feeling now is not your final destination.

‘Much better, happier times lie ahead of you.’

Aimee Gauvain.

Aimee came across this poem during her recovery and hopes it might help others to better understand mental illness.

‘I think it sums up how it feels to be gripped by anxiety and depression pretty well.’ she said.

Monsters

By Nikita Gill

The monsters were never

under my bed.

Because the monsters

were inside my head.

I fear no monsters,

for no monsters I see.

Because all this time,

the monster has been me.

  • To see Aimee’s blog, visit https://www.facebook.com/thepowerofyougsy
Helen Hubert

By Helen Hubert
Sub editor

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